Islamic Jurisprudence: The Role of Context as a Double-Edged Sword
by Dr. Robert D. Crane
While getting a jumpstart on reading the Qur’an during Ramadhan by reading for comprehension the first half at least up to Surah al Kahf (17) beforehand (and then rushing through the entire Qur’an superficially as a religious rite during Ramadhan), I have been struck by the many ways in which the Qur’an distinguishes among three variables in legal systems theory. These are normative law based on absolute truth, positivist law based entirely on human reason, and context.
The distinctions are important in analyzing “natural” versus “positivist” law, because the emphasis on “context,” meaning the specifics of time and place as factors in using reason to apply higher principles, can be misused to replace top-down juristic analysis deriving from absolute truth and justice with bottom-up conclusions devoid of higher meaning. This refers to the difference between the maqasid al shari’ah as the best methodology for understanding and applying the Qur’an and the literalist approach of the Salafis who in fact have no methodology and no basis for evaluating the meaning for application in varying contexts of time and place.
Without understanding the higher purpose or purposes of a hukm or regulation, its application often will result in injustice. At the same time, overemphasis on the unique time and place of the relevant revelation can undermine the very existence of normative law as a methodology to apply divine revelation. There is thus a dialectical tension inherent in all Islamic jurisprudential analysis.
Surah al Isra’, which comes immediately before Surah al Kahf, teaches in 17:39, according to Muhammad Asad’s tafsiri footnotes, that the term “hikma” in this verse refers to “the absolute God-willed standard of moral values and absolute truth.” Its etiological root means “to guard against,” but it also has a positive meaning.
In his footnote 48, he says that one inner meaning of the phrase in this ayah, “Do not set up any deity side by side with God” is a warning to acknowledge, respect, and apply divine law. Asad writes, “Since there is no basis for an acceptance of absolute moral values that are independent of time and social circumstance (i.e., “context”] without a belief in God and His ultimate judgement, the passage ends as it began, with a call to cognition of God’s Oneness and uniqueness.”
Hikma or wisdom would warn that overemphasis on context can vitiate the relevance of absolute moral values and their expression in the maqasid al shari’ah. Such overemphasis can amount to the positivist error of moral relativism, which consists in the belief that man can create moral values by his own fiat, which would mean that there are no real moral values other than those imposed by the sword.
This raises the perennial issue of the Mutazillite contention that reason trumps faith versus the Salafi position that faith trumps reason, both of which are extremist forms of error. The development of methodologies, such as the maqasid, has been designed to show that both extremes are wrong since there can be no conflict between the Qur’an and human reason. The elevation of either one to an absolute, independent of the other, is shirk al khafi or hidden idolatry. This is the meaning of this particular warning, made in various contexts throughout the Qur’an, “Do not set up any deity side by side with Allah.”
Of course, as explicitly stated in the related Surah al Isra’ 17:42, this also warns against accepting any mediators, such as angels, saints, or man-gods, in whom God’s divinity could be projected, because they have no power of their own, which means that there is every reason to pray to Allah directly and no reason not to.
These ayat are all interdependent, which is the basis of the other major methodology of Islamic jurisprudence, namely, nazm or “coherence,” which applies also to analysis of the matn or substance of a hadith and its coherence with the moral principles of the Qur’an.
All this means that context is a double-edged sword.